State of the Union January/February 2007

Surprise Party

Dismayed by the system they helped to create, some veteran political strategists are out to subvert it—and create a better choice for 2008.

The unelected professionals who run campaigns compete in a fiercely Darwinian system. Most can expect a career arc and professional longevity similar to the latest Hollywood starlet’s, and even the best are routinely replaced. Ideology and technology change with election cycles, and failure can strike suddenly. It’s a cutthroat calling—and when you’re finished, and everyone else has moved on, you may well harbor lingering regrets about the tactics you’ve used to win races. If you’ve worked in national politics at almost any point in the last forty years, chances are things got worse, not better, on your watch. That can gnaw at you.

Related graphic:

The ranks of voters who are neither Republicans nor Democrats have grown dramatically over the years.

It certainly gnawed at three diners gathered in a downtown Washington restaurant on a chilly October evening just before the 2005 elections, as an unlikely scene unfolded. Over dinner, some of the best political minds of the 1970s, Republican and Democratic, reached bipartisan consensus: none could any longer recognize the political parties in which they had once been major players. The cynical focus on divisive “wedge” issues and the ferocious negativity of recent campaigns, which fed in to an inability to govern once elected, dismayed everyone at the table.

Doug Bailey had pioneered modern political consulting, working with his late partner John Deardourff on behalf of Gerald Ford and other Republicans. Joining him were Jerry Rafshoon and Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s brain trust in the 1976 election that deposed Ford. Graying now, each successful in a career after politics, the three had assembled to discuss plans to produce a book and a documentary film about television’s impact on the political process—something each had helped bring about, and each had found cause to regret. During the course of a year spent researching their project, even these veterans had been alarmed to discover just how dysfunctional the system had become.

As the evening wore on, a sense of frustration pervaded the gathering, until finally Jordan exclaimed, “Why are you guys just writing a book? Can’t we do something about this? The country is in serious trouble here!” And then came the leap. The three decided on the spot that they would create a third party to represent the center in the 2008 presidential election. To guarantee that it would, they decided that the ticket itself would be bipartisan: one Democrat and one Republican. And if independents with bipartisan tendencies were interested, they’d be welcome, too. They called their new party “Unity08” and resolved that it would operate on the Internet. That way everyone could join the party online and participate as a delegate, helping to build the party’s platform collectively rather than ceding that task to interest groups, as both major parties tend to do. Ultimately, they hoped, these delegates would select a presidential and vice-presidential candidate in an online convention to be held in 2008, just after the major-party primaries determined the Republican and Democratic nominees. This will be a period of maximal importance to Unity08’s founders, who believe that many voters will be dissatisfied with the available choices, and that ambitious candidates—Republicans and Democrats who didn’t quite make it, as well as independents—will seriously consider a third-party alternative.

Bailey had been experimenting for years with the Internet applications of politics, in a series of civic-minded youth projects he’d embarked on after retiring from politics. All of the founders recognized that this new technology was poised to transform politics, just as greatly as television had in their own era. They had seen television’s effect on the political process grow more and more pernicious as the years went by, poisoning the dialogue while forcing candidates to raise ever-greater sums of money to pay for it. They recognized that the Internet, in its political infancy, was a force that could still be shaped for good.

The three parted ways that evening scarcely believing what they’d decided to do. But in the months ahead, as they studied the feasibility of their plan, they became convinced it could work. Being political consultants, they commissioned a national poll to examine the mood of the electorate and gauge its willingness to accept an independent party. The nation appeared willing indeed: 82 percent of respondents agreed that the country was too polarized to make progress solving problems, and three-quarters wanted more choices than just the Democratic and Republican candidates. The three persuaded Roger Craver, a pioneer in the field of cause-oriented fund-raising, to join them with the object of financing the effort through online donations, and they recruited an executive committee to raise a $1 million bridge fund. They also hired the prominent Washington law firm of Steptoe and Johnson to advise them on ballot access in all fifty states. To establish the appearance of sober competence, they enlisted the actor Sam Waterston, a friend of Rafshoon’s best known for his role as a principled district attorney on the television show Law & Order, to appear in Internet promotions. “I’m one of those people who have been watching politics from the outside with a typical mix of horror and fascination,” Waterston told me recently. “The idea is so simple, yet if it works, it’s one of those things that will change the direction of the river.”

The timing seemed auspicious, less because of the originators’ own career stages than because of the current evolutionary stage of the Internet itself. “During the 2004 election,” George Vradenburg, a former general counsel for America Online who is advising Unity08, told me, “people’s perception of the Internet started shifting dramatically, from the idea that it is an information source to the idea that it is an empowerment tool through which they can impact politics. The Internet has democratized American society in a number of ways. But it has not yet democratized our democracy.”

Vradenburg explains that the Internet is a “disruptive technology,” meaning one that upsets an existing system in the way that cars replaced horses and digital images are replacing film. Vradenburg and other theorists argue that in the case of the Internet, the disruption occurs in two distinct phases. In the first, the technology mimics a function that already exists, only faster and better (accountants can work from home). In the next, it transforms that function outright (accounting moves to India). He suggested how this might apply to politics: “Howard Dean showed that the Internet can be a great tool for fund-raising and organizing—existing functions performed in a political campaign. The next step is rethinking entirely how you go about the whole functionality you’re talking about. That’s what’s happening here: How do you transform the entire nominating process?”

The creators of Unity08 believe that the answer is to open the process to the Internet masses, causing a tectonic shift powerful enough to disrupt the two-party system. They have not, however, lost faith in that system—merely in its power to correct itself. “The two-party system has worked well for 200 years and can continue to do so,” Bailey says, “but only when elections are fought over the middle. Our goal is to jolt the two parties into recognizing this, by drawing them into a fight over the middle rather than allowing them to keep maximizing the appeal to their bases at the extremes.”

Bailey and his confederates envision their enterprise not as the establishment of a permanent third party but as a one-shot affair—a dose of medicine strong enough to bring the two parties to their senses. Only then, they believe, can things truly improve. In other words, they are attempting nothing less than to rescue American politics and put the country back on the right track.

Of course, Unity08’s formal launch this month also promises its founders the rare shot at a second act on the national political stage and a chance, all these years later, to atone for the past. “They were the first political consultants to grasp the power of the tube to both convince and convert,” says Dick Wirthlin, a contemporary who was Ronald Reagan’s pollster and chief strategist. “But I would attribute at least part of the tremendous cynicism we’re experiencing today to the way politicians and campaigns exploit the dark side of television.” The Unity08 principals seem to feel this way, too, which may explain their eagerness to once again harness a powerful new technology to political ends—this time with the wisdom of experience.

“We didn’t recognize it at the time,” Bailey told me, “but television just ran over us all: it changed our culture, our habits, our mores, our politics—it changed everything. None of us ever asked how we could use this wondrous new technology to improve our democracy. Well, we have another new technology that is going to change everything. If you recognize that right now our politics is as empty as at any point in my adult lifetime, and the issues are as serious as at any point in my adult lifetime, what choice do you have but to try to do something about it?”

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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